A/N: Last chapter is below.
As always, thanks to Windgirl810. Great beta. Great friend. Also to my friends/prereaders/editors Littlecat358, Michelle0526 and Tennesseelamb. I can never thank all four of you enough for the support, encouragement and swift kicks when I needed them. xoxo
Thanks to everyone who has reviewed/followed/favorited Ned and Stella. Each one is precious to me. No firm plans for an epilogue, but if inspiration strikes, I'll just attach it here. :)
Thanks to those who rec'ed this story in various places. It meant so much to me!
Thanks for reading and please review one last time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're making our final approach into the Dallas-Fort Worth area," the pilot announces. While he continues talking about the Texas summer weather and various connecting flights to other cities, I look to my left, across the first class aisle. Edward is reading a book. Turning to my right, I see Riley – who insisted on sitting with me instead of Alice, Jasper or Edward – still sleeping, curled up against the window with her blanket.
Smiling down at her, I let my thoughts drift back over the last two and a half months – since Jasper and Alice got engaged.
In June, Hale Software launched its new operating system in the United States to greater than anticipated sales. Jack was so pleased that he gave McCarty and Whitlock a bonus and a new advertising contract.
Rosalie moved to Seattle full-time. We all helped her after the movers brought her furniture into her downtown condo – even me. Since I'm apparently not going to get away from her, I've dropped my grudge, discovering in the process that she's a pretty good friend. Her often-brusque demeanor still offends me once in a while, but I'm getting more used to it. And Jas pointed out that she displays some of the same bitchy overreactions to fear that I do. We were at a bar when he made that assertion, causing me to choke on my beer. Then I had to drink two more beers when I realized he was right.
Ned and I spent the Fourth of July weekend at his grandparents' cabin again, but this year the whole Cullen clan tagged along. So there was no skinny dipping. And no canoe sex. While we were there, I overheard him ask Carlisle if we could build our own cabin across the pond – I mean Masen Lake – in a couple of years. I backed out of the room before I heard Carlisle's answer, before either of them noticed that I had come through the kitchen doorway behind them. And I surprised myself by feeling mostly excited with just a tiny amount of terror at the thought of building a second home with him.
Ned never mentioned anything to me about it, but he made me walk all the way around the lake, often trudging through ankle-deep mud. Several times, he wanted to stop and look at the view – of the mountains, of the meadow to the east, of the water. As we were standing on the west side of the lake, I told him that I liked being able to look across the water and see the meadow. It wasn't really a hint; I was just commenting. But when he hooked his pinky finger around mine and quietly answered that it was his favorite view, I figured that we'd just picked our spot.
Last weekend – the first weekend of August – we went to San Diego for the same technology conference we attended last year as fake boyfriend and girlfriend. We spent a lot of time with Peter and Charlotte during the four day trip. One morning while the guys were in a meeting, I confessed to Charlotte that Ned and I were only pretending to be a couple last summer. After hugging me, she disagreed – noting that we hadn't admitted our feelings to each other at that point, but that there was nothing fake about them, even then. She was right.
The funniest part of the weekend was that Tanya Denali almost completely ignored Edward, seemingly having moved on to another target this year. We saw her two different evenings in the bar getting way too friendly with a guy who had to be younger than I am. Ned won't admit it, but I think his ego was a little wounded by the lack of attention. To make him feel better, I dragged him to the room early the second night and got friendly with him. I think it worked.
That was only five nights ago. After being home for just three nights, we're now headed to Texas for a wedding… because Jasper and Alice decided that as long as you're rushing into an engagement, you might as well rush into a destination wedding at the Whitlock ranch, too.
When I look over at Edward again, he turns toward me and smiles.
"I love you," I mouth.
"You, too," he responds, leaning across the aisle and bracing his hand on my armrest. "She's still sleeping?"
"Yeah. I'm gonna wake her up in a sec," I say, covering his hand with mine. "Thanks for letting me sit next to her."
"I wasn't aware I had a choice," he laughs. "Talk about having an attitude. I've seen that go south into full-blown tantrums enough times to know better than to fight it. I couldn't take the silent treatment and dirty looks the whole flight from Seattle."
"Riley hasn't thrown a tantrum for a long time," I defend, frowning at him.
"I meant you, Stel," he teases, flipping his hand to squeeze my fingers briefly before sitting back up with a chuckle.
"Laugh it up, Ned," I say, raising one eyebrow at him even though I'm having a hard time keeping a straight face. "I'm telling Mama on you as soon as we get to the ranch."
He laughs harder, his face reddening. It's an empty threat and he knows it. During the week she spent in Seattle last spring, Mama and Edward forged quite a bond. She'd be just as likely to take his side as mine in an argument.
Rolling my eyes at him, I turn to Riley and gently wake her. We get her sandals back on and her blanket stowed in her backpack before landing. As soon as the plane stops at the gate, we unbuckle and stand up to deplane. I let Riley into the aisle ahead of me so that she's behind Alice and Jasper, who were sitting in front of us.
I feel Ned's hand on my shoulder right before he breathes in my ear. "Baby, you know I was joking."
"I know," I answer, twisting around to look at him with a too-sweet smile. "Me, too. I won't tell Mama what you said." I wait for him to smile back before I continue. "I'll tell Big Daddy."
When he picks us up from the airport, Big Daddy is grinning from ear to ear under his black cowboy hat. Once we're all piled into his Escalade, he starts his usual chatter about ministers and weddings – but this time he's talking to Alice instead of me. And this time, Big Daddy and Mama are getting the hitching they've wanted for their youngest son.
At the ranch, Mama greets us all, and then pulls Alice, Riley and me toward the kitchen while the boys carry the luggage inside.
"Y'all must be starved to death after your trip," she remarks, carrying a chocolate cake to the table. "Bella, will you get some plates and forks please?"
"Sure, Mama," I answer. "But you realize that Alice and I have to fit into some very important dresses on Saturday, right?"
"Of course, sweet pea," she says, turning to smile at me. "We're just gonna have a little taste. Isn't that right, Riley?"
Knowing better than to argue with Mama when she's decided that people need a good feeding, I carry the plates and forks to the table, and then pour a glass of milk for Riley and sweet tea for the rest of us. Not surprisingly, the talk at the table is all about the wedding.
"Stay put, Mama," I say, patting her shoulder as I stand when the men come into the kitchen. "I'll take care of the boys." I get cake and tea for all of them and am standing at the counter when the back door opens.
"Where's my future wife?"
Smiling, I turn around to look at him. "Hey, Joey."
Twisting his ball cap around backward, he walks straight toward me, grabbing me and dipping me over his arm.
"Hi, beautiful," he grins.
"Joey!" I hiss quietly. "Let me up. Edward's sitting right there."
"I know that, darlin'. I can feel the heat of his glare," he drawls. "But I can't forget the pain in your eyes last Thanksgiving. I liked your city boy when I met him in Seattle, but I want to know he's still treating you well."
"He is. We're happy," I insist. "Let me up."
"Okay," he agrees, kissing my cheek and then setting me upright again. "Hey, Mama. Hey, y'all."
He walks to the table, kisses Alice and Riley and makes fun of his little brother for getting married in north Texas during the hottest month of the year. He turns down Mama's offer of cake, but, guessing he's thirsty, I pour him a glass of tea. While my back is turned, I hear him say hello to Edward – and I hear Edward's terse reply.
Joey moves back toward me, taking the glass I hand him and drinking most of it before coming up for air.
"Thanks," he smiles. "You sure you don't wanna move down here? Sweet tea and sweet lovin' are all it takes to keep a cowboy happy. You're halfway there."
"Gross," I scoff. "You'll have to rely on Maggie for that other half."
His smile disappears immediately, replaced by the darkest expression I've ever seen on Joey's face. "I reckon Maggie'll be other halfin' someone else by now," he snaps. "She handed me a walking stick and told me where to shove it a month ago."
"Oh, Joey, I'm sorry," I say, reaching for his arm and squeezing gently. "What happened?"
"She started pressuring me. I tried to compromise, but it wasn't enough for her," he answers. "I swear, she'd complain if Jesus Christ himself came down and handed her a hundred dollar bill."
"She wanted to get married?"
"She wanted to be my date for Jasper's wedding," he corrects, making me frown. Seeing my confused look, he rushes to explain. "I didn't see the need to label ourselves, especially since she was already coming along with her folks to the reception. But she wanted to come to the ceremony with me so everyone would think she's my girlfriend."
"And you said no? What a jackass," I mutter, shaking my head at him.
"I can't just turn my whole life upside down for her," he asserts. "Plus, I never bring dates to family events."
"But you've been dating since last fall," I remark incredulously.
"We've been screwing since last fall," he retorts, smirking. "We don't go out much."
I smack the side of his head lightly. "Idiot. I thought maybe you were in love with this girl."
He looks down and turns around to lean against the counter, I assume so no one else can see his furrowed brow and droopy mouth. Glancing at the table, I see that Jas isn't paying any attention to us, but Edward is. I smile at him before sliding my eyes toward Mama. She's watching, too, and probably trying to listen. She's also smirking… which makes me suspicious. But I step back to face Joey, returning my focus to him.
"I am in love with her," he admits quietly. "But I didn't say it when I should have and now I've fucked it all up. I don't know how to fix it. She won't take my calls. Won't see me."
I wrap my arms around him, patting his back the same way I do Riley's when she's upset about something.
"Is she still coming to the reception?"
"I don't know. Prob'ly show up with someone else to rub it in my face."
I rear back and reach my hands up to cup the sides of his face. "Joseph Wesley Whitlock, you listen to me," I scold. "All this moping around will not win back the woman you love. Make a plan and charm the pants off her. Quit smiling. I didn't mean that literally and you know it."
"Yes, ma'am," he replies, but he's starting to laugh. And so am I. He turns to face the table again. "Alice, Riley, would you two like to walk down to the barn? I finished hanging all the lights this morning."
The barn where Alice and Jasper's reception will be held isn't much of a barn. But it is a beautiful building with stained concrete floors, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and a vaulted beam ceiling. Big Daddy built it for Jason and Bree's reception several years ago, and many other parties have been held there since. Everyone decides to go along except Mama, and, wanting a word alone with her, I decline, too. Edward makes a point of coming to kiss me goodbye.
"What's going on with Joey?" he asks, putting his mouth close to my ear.
"Girl trouble," I whisper. "Be nice to him."
"I will," he assures me, but he drops his hand from the middle of my back down to the top of my ass, presumably marking his territory since Joey is standing behind me. He grins at me as I shove him away.
Once they're all out the door, I help Mama carry the plates and glasses to the sink. We talk about the wedding for the first few minutes, but eventually I twist the conversation toward what I want to know.
"Joey told me that Maggie broke up with him," I begin.
"That boy's crazier than a rabid coon about her," she says, handing me glasses to put in the dishwasher. "Been draggin' tail around here ever since she shut him down."
"Mama, you wouldn't have had anything to do with that shut down," I ask curiously, "would you?" Folding my arms across my chest, I raise one eyebrow at her and purse my lips to the side.
"Bella! I'm surprised at you," she exclaims, pressing a hand over her heart. "Thinking that I would intentionally do something so manipulative." Shaking her head, she clucks her tongue at me as she turns away… and then she giggles.
"I knew it!" I declare. "What did you do?"
"I tell you, I love that boy more than my own life, but Joseph has always been my most challenging child," she states, sighing as she wipes the counter. "He's not any better looking than the rest of my boys, but he does have a certain kind of charm that the others don't possess. Women have been chasing him since he was fifteen years old."
"So what did you do?"
"Well, when I heard him bragging to his daddy about having Maggie wrapped around his little finger, I had no choice but to step in," she defends, turning her attention to rinsing out the sink. I'm starting to think that she doesn't want to look me in the eye. "I could tell that she was different for him, but he's never had to really face his feelings for a woman before. He was fixin' to screw it all up."
"Quit justifying and start spilling!"
"I suggested to Maggie that Joey might need to be the one doing the pursuing for once," she admits, finally facing me, and having the good sense to at least look sheepish about what she did. "Ever since that day, she's been running and he's been chasing right after."
"Mama, I can't believe you would do that," I say, even though that's pretty close to what I thought she did. "Joey's really hurting."
"Sweet pea, I know that," she contends. "When you're a mama, your baby's pain is like your own, no matter how old that baby is. But I have faith that the pain he's going through now will make his joy even greater when she finally relents."
"It's a risk," I remark.
"All great love is," she replies. "Thought you would have learned that particular lesson yourself this past year."
"I did," I admit hesitantly.
"And the reward for you has been pretty great," she smiles.
"Yes, it has," I agree, smiling at her.
"You just glow around him, Bella. It does my heart good seeing all of you so happy." She comes toward me to hug me tightly. "Well, everyone except Joey. I feel it building though. His heart will get the better of him soon, I think, and he'll make his big move."
"But then whose life will you meddle in?" I tease as we pull apart.
"You'd best watch your smart remarks, Isabella," she chides, but she's trying not to laugh. "There's never a shortage of loved ones who need a little extra guidance, including you. Now take me upstairs and show me the important dress you'll be wearing on Saturday."
After dinner, Mama and I are in the kitchen playing cards with Riley.
"Bella, what's an old maid?" Riley asks innocently.
"An older lady who's not married," I answer, smiling at her.
I feel my face heat as Mama laughs.
"No, sweetie. Someone older than me."
"My mommy's not an old maid," she announces. "She's a bride. Someday, I want to be a bride. Do you want to be a bride someday, too, Bella?"
Before I have to answer, I hear boots on the floor as someone walks in behind me. Turning around, I see Ned, ready to head out with the Whitlock boys, wearing boots and a cowboy hat. Pushing away from the table, I stand up and walk toward him.
"Do I look stupid?"
"No, Ned. As usual, you look ridiculously good. You'll be fighting off all the ladies at Shady's," I predict.
"The same way you fight off Joey?" I knew this was going to come up again.
"Joey is a harmless flirt."
"He keeps calling you his future wife."
"Edward, he's joking," I insist, resting my palms against his chest. "He's trying to get a rise out of you."
He pulls me closer, linking his fingers at the back of my waist. "He won't, but you could," he says lowly.
Laughing, I smile up at him. "Don't drink too much and we'll try that when you get back," I reply quietly, pushing the brim of his hat back.
"Don't mess up my hat."
"You have to tip it back if you're gonna kiss your girl," I advise, pulling on his neck until he leans down.
"Fathers, guard your daughters. The Whitlock boys are goin' to town," Joey calls, clapping his hands as he leads Jas and Jason into the kitchen. "Come on, city boy. Get your hands off my future wife and let's go shoot whiskey."
Edward sighs against my lips. I kiss him quickly. "Go. Have fun. Don't fight," I say, stepping away to adjust his hat for him. "I'll be here waiting."
Mama and I stay up talking well past midnight, and I haven't been asleep very long when my bedroom door opens. But instead of the tall, messy-haired silhouette I'm expecting, I see Mama's shadowy shape in the light from the hall. Panic races through me as I sit up.
"Get your shoes, sweet pea. We've got a situation," she answers quietly, and then she's gone.
Heart hammering in my chest, I turn on the bedside lamp and bolt from the bed. I spend ten seconds debating whether I should put clothes on, but end up deciding that Mama would have said if I needed to get dressed… unless it's a dire emergency. Shit! Rushing, I put on my flip flops and grab the shirt Edward wore earlier today from the bench at the end of the bed. As I hurry down the stairs and out to the garage, I shove my arms into the sleeves and pull it around myself.
Mama's already in the driver's seat of her Caddy with the engine running.
"How bad is it?" I ask as I shut the door and fasten my seatbelt.
"Bad?" she asks, glancing at me as she backs out. "Oh, honey, I didn't realize you thought it was bad news. I'm so sorry to have frightened you."
Relaxing against the seat with a heavy sigh, I laugh in relief. "It's okay, Mama. But it's two o'clock in the morning. Where are we going?"
"The Fillingham's place. Maggie's been staying with her folks the last couple of weeks," she smiles, putting the car in drive and speeding down the long driveway. "Joey's making his big move."
When we get to the Fillingham's, Mama parks in front of the house, right next to Big Daddy. He grins at me as I get out of the car and approach him.
"Figured you two might show up. The boys were drunker 'n seven dollars when I picked them up at Shady's," he says, pulling a plastic toothpick from his mouth. Over his shoulder, I see Jas stretched out on the seat, sound asleep. "Jasper didn't make it four blocks before he passed out. We dropped Jason off at home, and Joey and Edward went stumblin' around to the back of the house a few minutes ago."
"You haven't seen Maggie yet?" Mama asks anxiously.
"Nope," Big Daddy answers. "I 'spect she'll torture him a little longer."
"Think this will work?" I ask.
"Hard to say. But after Edward told Joey how well it worked with you, Joey was hell bent on trying it," he laughs.
"Well, I'm not going to miss the show," Mama declares, taking off at a brisk pace around the side of the house.
"We may as well watch, too, Bella," Big Daddy says as he opens his car door and climbs out.
Before we get to the backyard, I hear them.
"Maggie. Maggie," Joey yells. Edward joins in on the second syllable each time. Both of them are looking toward an upstairs window. Neither of them seems to notice that Mama, Big Daddy and I are standing a few feet away. "Maggaaaayyyy."
Suddenly, the outside light comes on, but it's not a young woman who comes outside and slams the door. It's a very angry older man – and his rifle.
"Joey, what the devil is going on out here?" he demands. He cocks the rifle, but cradles it across his chest, not pointing it at anyone. Beside me, Mama chuckles, and I wonder fleetingly if she's got Mr. Fillingham roped into her scheme, too.
"Mr. Filli'ham," Joey says, his words slurred slightly. "I needa talk to Maggie."
"She's in bed. Y'all stop making all this racket and go on home."
"I can't, sir. I can't. I gotta tell her," he persists. Backing up a step, Joey looks up at the second floor window again and yells. "Maggie. Maggaaaayyyy."
"I don't reckon my daughter is interested in anything you have to say," Mr. Fillingham proclaims. Seeing movement in my peripheral vision, I glance toward the window beside the back door and see someone peering between the blinds. "But if you tell me, I'll relay the message in the morning."
Joey blinks uncertainly at Mr. Fillingham for a few seconds, then reaches one hand up to grip the back of his neck.
"Say it," Mama says under her breath. We're too far away for Joey to hear her, but Big Daddy answers softly.
"Give him a minute, Mary. The boy's getting there."
"Tell her… tell her… I love her," Joey finally replies, the words coming out in a quiet gust of air.
"Speak up, boy," Mr. Fillingham orders. In front of me, Mama has her hands pressed against her mouth and is nodding.
"I love her," Joey says loudly. "I'm in love with her."
When I hear the back door open, I turn and see a young woman who I assume is Maggie step outside, closing the door behind her.
"Joey Whitlock, so help me God, if you're lying, I'll break your legs." She moves to stand beside her father, watching Joey warily.
"Maggie," he says hoarsely as he walks toward her. "I'm not lying. I swear."
"Why should I give you another chance?"
He shrugs. "You prob'ly shouldn't. Lord knows I don't deserve it," he allows, stopping in front of her. "But I promise I'll treat you right from now on."
Mama is sniffling, I'm teary-eyed, and the way Big Daddy just cleared his throat makes me think he's choked up, too. Turning to look at Edward, I see that he's watching Joey with the same drunk grin on his face that he had that night in Key West. The night when he was yelling outside my window.
"No more telling people that I'm wrapped around your finger?" Maggie asks, drawing my attention back to her.
"We're going to go on dates where people might see us?"
"You won't pretend I'm nothing to you if we see each other in town?"
"Never. You have my word."
She takes a step toward him, nodding slightly. Joey pulls her into his arms, bending down to speak quietly to her. Mama and I both sigh while Big Daddy mutters something about Mama always getting what she wants.
Mr. Fillingham and his rifle walk toward us, but I step away, heading for Edward.
"Hi, Stel," he says, still smiling, when I reach him. "What are you doing here?"
"Coming to get you. How drunk are you?"
"Not that much," he responds, leaning down to kiss me. "You're pretty."
"Thanks," I say with a laugh. "Ready to go?"
He nods. "I need to sit down."
Taking his hand, I pull him toward where Mama and Big Daddy are waiting. Mama winks at us – well, at Edward – and then gasps as we get closer.
"Edward Cullen, what has happened to your face?" she demands. "Get over here in the light where I can see you."
I didn't notice anything on Edward's face when I was standing with him in the dim yard, but now that we're under the light, I can see that his left cheek is red and bruising.
I hear Joey tell Maggie that he'll call her in the morning as she goes inside, then he turns toward us. Mama is holding Edward's face, turning it toward the light and twisting it back and forth, clucking her tongue all the while.
"Now, Mama. It wasn't his fault," Joey begins when he gets to us. "That little asshole Bubba McCoy started all of it. Right, city boy?"
Mama hmphs, releasing Edward's face and walking toward the front of the house. We all follow, as expected.
"The things he said about me, Jasper… our family. Mama, I just couldn't let it slide," Joey insists.
"So you got mouthy with him?" she guesses.
"Yep. And Edward did, too," he grins. "But city boy's reflexes aren't as quick as mine. He went left when he should have gone right."
Mama stops in front of the cars and turns to face us. "Bella, you ride home with Big Daddy. I want a private word with these two fools," she declares. Too smart to argue, I nod and head for the passenger side of the Escalade, holding in my laughter when I hear what Mama says to Edward. "I warned you to stay away from Joey. He's a bad influence. Now you've got yourself a black eye for your sister's wedding. I should knock both y'all into next week."
Big Daddy and I chat quietly on the drive back. At the ranch, I help get Jas inside and settled on the couch. When we hear Mama's car coming up the drive, Big Daddy tells me where to find Mama's secret salve for getting rid of bruises quickly, suggesting I take it from the kitchen medicine cabinet and go upstairs. Now. Since his advice where Mama's concerned is generally good, I follow it.
While I'm brushing my teeth in our bathroom, I hear Edward come into the bedroom. I walk out and see him lying face down across the bed. He doesn't speak or move as I pull off the borrowed cowboy boots.
"Roll over, baby," I whisper. He does, but still doesn't say anything, keeping his eyes closed. He cooperates as I take his jeans and socks off. I lean forward to unsnap the front of his shirt, then inhale sharply when I see the bruises across the left side of his body. "Does that hurt?"
"Yeah," he breathes. "Bubba hits hard."
"Why did you butt in?"
"He got in Joey's face."
"And you got between them?" Standing up again, I slide my hands down the front of his legs and wrap them around his ankles.
"Joey was wasted. Didn't want him to get his ass kicked," he replies. "Especially since my girlfriend is his future wife." He doesn't open his eyes, but he lifts his hands to make snotty quotes around the words.
"Ah, I see he's still not getting a rise out of you," I say sarcastically as his hands drop back to the bed. "If you're so irritated with him, why'd you defend him?"
He mutters the universal three-syllable grunt that means he doesn't know. When a few seconds tick by with no other answer, I clear my throat and tug gently on his ankles. He exhales deeply, probably annoyed that I keep asking questions.
"You said they're like your brothers," he grumbles, making me smile. I glide my hands up and down his shins as he continues. "Can't have anyone talking like that to my girlfriend's family."
"Thank you… for what you did for Joey. With Maggie. And at the bar."
He frowns slightly. "Did it for you."
Pulling my hands off him, I let his shirt slide from my shoulders and push my pajama pants off. Wearing just my tank top and underwear, I crawl onto the bed, straddling him and resting my hands on his chest. "Ned, I'm not usually in favor of using violence as a solution to problems, but… that actually turns me on."
Eyes still closed, he raises one hand to lay on my leg. "You're gonna have to ramble or something, Stel. I'm hardly awake."
"Thank you. Thank you," I say quietly, bending forward to kiss his forehead, the uninjured side of his face, his mouth. "Thank you." I trace his bottom lip with my tongue before skimming my lips down his neck. He moans softly, but continues to lie unmoving underneath me.
"Welcome," he mumbles.
"Did you know the state flower of Texas is the bluebonnet?"
"And the state animal is the armadillo."
"Big Daddy told me it's the longhorn."
"They have a large and small state animal," I laugh against his chest. "Jesus, why do I know that?"
As I kiss my way across his flat stomach, I scrape my fingernails over his nipples and he finally moves, arching his back slightly. I drop my palms to the bed, supporting myself as I gently touch my lips to his bruised ribs. When I look up, he's watching me.
"Want me to sing The Yellow Rose of Texas?" I ask, raising one eyebrow.
He huffs out a chuckle, and then winces. "Ouch. Shit," he hisses. "You know the words to The Yellow Rose of Texas?"
"Of course, Ned," I scoff, sitting back on his thighs. Then I quietly sing. "There's a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see."
He shakes with laughter and reaches for his side. "Stop making me laugh."
"I can't help it if my ramblings are wildly amusing," I smile as I pull my tank top off. "I should probably leave you alone though – you know, since you're sleepy and in pain."
"It doesn't hurt that bad," he protests. Wrapping his hands around the outside of my thighs, he pulls on me until I scoot forward a bit.
"But you're hardly awake," I tease.
"Baby, I think you can tell that's no longer the case," he says roughly. He holds me in place as he pushes his erection against me. "You're gonna have to be on top though."
Leaning forward again, I sigh against his lips, feeling his hands dig into my hair. "That's no problem, Ned. That's no problem for me at all."
The next three days pass in a whirlwind as we finish preparations for the wedding. Scott and Jeremy arrive from Key West. Carlisle, Esme, Emmett and Rosalie come from Seattle. We all do whatever Mama asks, and by Saturday night, everything is ready.
As planned, the family-only wedding is held inside the house. It's beautiful, and I spend the first part of the ceremony looking at Jas. Other than when he was hungover on Thursday, I don't think he's stopped smiling since we got to Texas. He's so happy – and I'm so happy that my best friend finally found his soul mate. And even more elated that I love her, too.
Standing beside Alice, I wonder if she'll return the favor for me someday soon. The fear I once felt about making this commitment to Edward has all but disappeared. But even though I've tried to drop some hints over the last couple of weeks, Edward doesn't seem to be getting it.
Or maybe he doesn't want to get it. My heart pounds as a new fear races through me. What if he's changed his mind? Panicked, I look over my right shoulder to where he's sitting with Carlisle and Esme in the front row. They're all watching Alice, but Edward glances my way and winks. I smile back at him before we both turn our attention to the ceremony again. Wiping my own selfish worries out of my head, I applaud along with everyone else when Jasper and Alice are pronounced husband and wife.
At the reception, attended by almost everyone in Grayson County, I help keep track of Riley and hang out with Rosalie since she really doesn't know anyone else. Late in the evening, I offer to hold Jason and Bree's sleeping baby girl so they can dance together. Standing near the cake table, I sway back and forth slowly and watch them; holding each other close, talking and laughing, even after years of marriage and three kids.
That's what I want. All of it.
I let my eyes roam the dance floor, landing briefly on some of the other dancing couples: Edward and Alice, Emmett and Rosalie, Jasper and Riley, Joey and Maggie, Big Daddy and Esme. Smiling, I turn my head when Mama comes to stand beside me.
"My dogs sure are barking. Don't tell anyone you saw me do this," she whispers. She bends down to take her shoes off, and then kicks them under the cake table. "I see you've got my littlest angel there. Well, littlest angel for now. I expect Jasper and Alice will add to the family. And you and Edward, too, once you're married."
"Oh, Lord, Mama," I sigh. "Can we finish one wedding before you start planning another?"
"Sweet pea, idle hands are the devil's plaything. I like to keep mine busy," she says, wiggling her fingers at me. "Besides, don't you want to see me happy in my golden years?"
"Now you're trying to make me feel guilty?" I laugh.
"Guilty about what?" Edward asks, suddenly appearing behind me. He kisses the side of my head and runs the tips of his fingers across the baby's head.
"Well, if this isn't a pretty picture! The two of you with a baby," Mama exclaims. "I feel like I'm looking right into a crystal ball."
"Mama," I groan, closing my eyes and shaking my head.
"Oh, hush," she scolds. "The way you two feel about each other is written all over your faces. I expect to be invited to Seattle for a wedding soon."
"Mama, please," I beg, feeling my face heat. Edward slides his arm around my waist as he steps up beside me.
"Or you'd be welcome to have the nuptials here," she continues, undeterred.
"She'd have to say yes first," Edward laughs, using the arm he has around my waist to squeeze gently. I feel my mouth drop open and turn to glare at him, but he's too busy sharing a laugh with Mama to notice.
I'd have to say yes first? Maybe you should ask first, you arrogant semi-asshole. Trying to curb my irritation, I look around the room, catching Jer's eye from a few feet away. He frowns, then excuses himself from the group he was talking to, motioning for Scott to follow. They both eye me cautiously as they approach.
"Baby Swan, care to dance?" Jer asks evenly, standing on the other side of Edward. "Scott will take the baby."
"I'd love to," I answer tightly, forcing myself to smile at him. Edward trails his hand along my arm as I pull away to hand off the baby. I take Jer's arm and walk off without a backward glance.
As we dance, we talk about the ceremony, the perfect weather, Scott, their hope to adopt a child next year. Then, finally, about me.
"You looked like you were ready to give somebody a whooping back there," he says. "What were my Mama and your boyfriend cooking up?"
"Marriage talk," I complain, "where I end up looking like the villain who won't say yes." I relay the whole conversation, speaking quietly as he bends down to me.
"But he's never really proposed?" Jer asks, frowning.
"No," I grouse. "Jas says he's waiting for some secret signal from me or something."
"Well, at least you're not letting it affect your mood," he teases, waiting until I smile reluctantly before he continues. "I think Jasper's right. Edward is letting you lead, just like he did when he came to Key West."
"I'm starting to feel like I'm going to have to be the one who proposes," I grumble, trying not to smile when Jer laughs. But he spins us around quickly until I can't help but giggle.
When we slow into rhythm again, he kisses my forehead. "Baby Swan, it's all gonna work out. The way that man looks at you, he'll give you anything you want if you just say the word," he soothes. "And, shit, are you two ever gonna make beautiful babies."
"Oh, hell, not you, too."
"Admit it. You've thought about it," he prods.
"Well, not about if they'll be beautiful or not," I confess. "But yeah." He hugs me tightly and I rest my chin on his shoulder.
We spend the rest of the song planning trips to each other's cities, knowing that we'll all go our separate ways tomorrow. Realizing that it will be several months before I see him again makes me sad.
As the song comes to a close, I watch Edward walk toward us.
"May I cut in?" he asks, standing next to us. Jer pulls back to look questioningly at me, then hands me over to Ned once I nod. Sliding one arm around my waist, he pulls me close, holding our joined hands over his heart. "Are you mad at me?"
"No," I say, tilting my head back to look at him. "Just don't give Mama any more ammunition. She can't help but push."
"I noticed," he chuckles. "But it's up to us. There's no pressure."
"I don't feel pressured, Ned. I'm not afraid of–."
"Good," he interrupts, "because I don't want to change anything."
"You don't?" I ask, taken aback. My breath rushes out in a quiet huff. I assumed he was ready to take the next step and was just waiting for me… but I guess I was wrong.
"Nope," he confirms, leaning down to kiss me. "I'm happy with our life. Are you?"
"Yeah," I answer as I nod. It's the truth; I am happy. Although I want more with him, I'm willing to wait for him the same way I thought he was waiting for me. "I'm happy with our life, too."
We're quiet for a moment, both holding tight, until he pulls away to look at me.
"How's my face? Is my makeup staying on?"
With a laugh, I reach up to trace the faint bruising on his cheek. Thanks to Mama's salve and my concealer, it's barely visible.
"You look great, slugger."
Leaning down, he lowers his voice, speaking quietly in my ear. "Are you still aroused by my defense of your family's honor?"
"No. But after Bree told me how many people Bubba has beaten up, I am grateful that you came back in one piece."
"Grateful as in you want to write a thank you note to Bubba? Or grateful as in you want to go to our room and have your way with me?"
"Neither," I reply. "You could probably persuade me to do one of those things though."
"Which one?" he teases, standing up and smirking.
"I'll give you a hint, Ned," I say as I start to back up, pulling him from the dance floor with me. "I love you… and I hate writing thank you notes."
Two weeks later, I sit cross-legged on our bed watching Edward as he finishes packing. The car will be here in ten minutes to take him – and Rosalie – to the airport. They're flying to Asia for the worldwide release of the new operating system. I know he has to go, but I'm a little freaked that he'll be gone during the same dates as the ill-fated trip to Europe a year ago… when everything started to fall apart for us.
As he zips his suitcase closed and lifts it off the bed, I drop my eyes to my lap, picking idly at my fingernails. Bending down, he rests his palms on my knees, putting his face right in front of mine.
"Look at me, Stella," he says softly, waiting until I meet his gaze before he continues. "This is nothing like last year."
Nodding, I swallow loudly before I try to speak. "I know. I'm just going to miss you."
"I'll miss you, too, baby," he replies, pressing his lips to mine. "But you'll be busy. You have a big deadline while I'm gone, right? You'll hardly be home anyway."
"Nice try, Ned, but I don't feel better," I mutter, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. He stands up again, lifting me to kneel on the bed.
"I'll be back before you know it." Burying his face in my neck, he holds me more tightly and exhales against my skin. When the doorbell rings a couple of minutes later, he kisses me before pulling away. "Walk down with me?"
After I agree, we go downstairs and outside. I lean into the limo to tell Rosalie goodbye, then hug and kiss Edward once more. I manage to smile and wave from the sidewalk as they drive away… and I make it back inside before I cry.
During the seven days that follow, Edward texts often and calls at least once a day, always mindful of the time difference and the fact that I really like my sleep. While he's gone, I try to follow our normal routine – running on the evenings we usually do, eating dinner out with our friends, taking Riley for ice cream – hoping it will make the time go by quickly. It doesn't really work.
The day before he comes home, our bedroom furniture is finally delivered. The new dresser is taller than the old one and has an additional drawer on each side. After I move some of my things from the closet into my extra drawer, I decide to surprise Edward by moving his stack of plain, white t-shirts into his. Chuckling, I remember how hard he tried to trade me more closet space in return for one of my drawers when I moved in. Even though he was grumpy, I didn't give it up.
When I pull his pile of shirts from the closet shelf, a small, cardboard box that was concealed underneath falls to the floor. Replacing the shirts, I bend down to pick up the box. It's black. Square. Fits in the palm of my hand.
And the silver script on top of the box reads "Morgan's Fine Jewelry".
Blowing out a shaky breath, I let my unsteady legs buckle, sinking to the floor. I take the lid off the box and carefully lift out the smaller, square, velvet box inside. As I hold it in my hand, I'm aware that my heart is pounding, my breathing is shallow… and I'm smiling. I'm not scared at all.
I set the box down on the floor and pull my knees into my chest, hugging them. "This is so stupid," I mumble, raising one hand to swipe at the tears leaking from my eyes. "I don't even know if it's what I think it is."
Picking the box up again, I turn it over in my hand. What else could be in a box this size? I doubt if it's more earrings. He knows I love the ones he gave me… I rarely take them off. It could be another charm for my bracelet, I guess. Or cufflinks. But why would he hide the box if it's just a pair of cufflinks? He's got several pairs that he keeps in an antique cigar box on the dresser. Logically, whatever's in here must be for me.
I giggle to myself, happy that I found it, hoping that I'm right about what's inside. But I feel guilty for snooping, even though my discovery was accidental. So, although I'd like to peek, I force myself to put it back inside the larger box, and replace it beneath the pile of t-shirts.
When he calls a couple of hours later, I find it difficult to talk normally to him, laughing nervously several times. Ned comments on my giddiness, but lets it go when I tell him I'm just glad he'll be home in twenty-six hours. Besides, that's also true.
All day Friday, I count down the hours until his plane will arrive. When there are only two hours left, the phone rings. It's Ned. Frowning, I answer warily.
"Hi, Stel," Ned begins.
"No! No, no, no. You're supposed to be in the air," I whine.
"I know, baby. We're stuck in L.A. Mechanical problems. We have to fly standby on the late flight," he explains.
"How late? You were already getting in after nine," I reply.
"If we get on the flight, I'll be home around two," he says. "Don't wait up. I'll try not to wake you when I come in."
"Ned," I breathe. "Shit. I want you here now."
"I feel the same. And I'm dying for regular food. I'd love a PB&J."
Laughing, I promise to fix him as many sandwiches as he wants tomorrow. After we hang up, I mope around the house, watch TV, take a bath. He texts me to say that they got on the flight, but a little after midnight, I realize I'll never be able to stay awake until he gets home.
I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cover it with plastic wrap, and leave it on the counter with a note. When I get upstairs, I turn on the bathroom light for him, strip down and get in bed, rolling onto my stomach and falling asleep almost instantly.
Later, through a sleepy haze, I hear him whisper my name and feel the sheet being peeled away from my back.
"Edward?" I blink slowly, trying to force my eyes to stay open.
"Yeah, baby. I didn't want to wake you," he answers, climbing onto the bed. His lips skim across my shoulder as he crawls over me, putting a hand on each side of my head and wedging one leg in between mine. "You weren't sleeping, were you?"
"Nope," I lie, smiling. Chuckling, he uses one hand to move my hair away from my neck. "Hi."
"Hi, sweetheart. Thanks for the sandwich," he whispers, kissing the corner of my mouth.
"God, you smell good," I mumble. "I never considered peanut butter an aphrodisiac before." He chuckles against my ear, hitting me with another wave of the sweet scent. "Jesus, it's probably not even the peanut butter. You probably have some freaky pheromone never before known to man – or woman. It's just you. Maybe that's why I can't keep my hands to myself when you're around. And why I can't stop thinking about you. I kept smelling your shirts last week – the dirty ones in the hamper, Ned. Isn't that gross? I didn't do any of your laundry because I was afraid your stuff wouldn't smell like you anymore. What's the matter with me?"
"Even half-asleep, you ramble," he laughs, kissing across my upper back. "I missed you so fucking much last week, Stel."
"Not a week. Nine days, Ned," I correct. "No more trips that long."
"Okay," he agrees. He pulls the sheet completely off me then, but covers me with his body immediately. He lies between my legs, pushing them farther apart and pressing me into the mattress. "But I have to say, coming home to you sleeping naked in our new bed is pretty great."
"Do you like the furniture?"
"Can I get back to you? I'm a little distracted right now," he murmurs, sounding amused as he scoots down, kissing his way down my spine.
"Mmhmm," I answer. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty freaking distracted myself.
"Missed your spectacular ass, too," he murmurs against my lower back. He dips his fingers between my legs, stroking me gently. "Did you miss me?"
"I think we've already established that," I answer breathlessly, trying to move against his hand. "Peanut butter breath. Stinky clothes."
He hmms as he moves up my body again, pulling his hand away from me. Despite the amount of wiggling I do under him, he takes his time, grazing his lips and fingers across my back. When he nuzzles my neck, I push my hips up toward him, and then gasp when he thrusts against me.
I love the weight of him on my back… love the way he continues sliding slowly between my legs, not pushing inside. As he runs his tongue along the shell of my ear, I reach up to grip his hair, panting. When I whimper, he slips his hand between my body and the mattress, moving toward where I want it most. Curling his fingers in, he finds my clit and circles it gently. This isn't really comfortable, but I don't really care.
"Did you miss me?" he repeats, his low voice sending another surge of desire racing through me.
"Yes," I groan. "Hate you… gone."
"But you love this?" he asks. "Love me?"
"Yes. Oh, God… Ned," I gasp, arching my back as I come, my heart pounding hard and fast. Totally limp, I collapse down onto the bed again. He shifts his arm to my waist, turning me over easily despite my lack of cooperation. He thrusts into me, then holds still and leans down to kiss me.
"I love you," he says lowly, looking into my eyes. He wraps one hand and then the other around my wrists, pinning me to the bed. "Does this scare you?"
"No, Edward," I whisper. "I trust you."
Putting his open mouth against mine, he pulls out and slowly slides back in several times, until I push back. He groans my name and speeds up, driving into me again and again. When I come a second time, he follows right after, releasing my wrists and gripping my hands instead.
Sweaty and out of breath, we lie tangled together… not moving, not talking. I try to blink away the tears collecting in my eyes before he sees them. This isn't the first time I've been overwhelmed by my feelings for him, but it's the first time I've been completely unafraid of them… unafraid of what I want.
He mumbles that he's too heavy as he rearranges us soon after, shifting us to our sides. Resting his head against my chest, he wraps an arm around me as I pull my fingers lazily through his hair.
"Don't leave again, okay?" I ask, kissing the top of his head.
"Baby, you know I have to travel for work."
"Yes, Ned," I say, annoyed. "Rationally, I get that. But I want to pretend for tonight. Can't you just tell me that you won't leave?"
He scoots up in the bed so that we're face to face. "I won't leave, Stella."
Smiling, I press my lips to his. "Say it like Brando," I plead quietly.
"Stellllaaaa," he whispers hoarsely, making us both laugh. "Stellllaaaa."
He kisses me several times, but when he pulls away to yawn, I know it won't be long before he's out. I roll over, sighing contentedly as he hauls me back against his chest.
"Know what I want to do tomorrow?" I ask.
"Sleep, I hope," he mutters. "Or at least stay in bed."
"Definitely sleep," I answer, reaching for the hand he has around my waist. "But I was thinking, if you feel up to it, maybe we could walk to the lake in the afternoon… rent a canoe or something."
"Sure, Stel. Whatever you want," he mumbles tiredly. "Just let me know."
I smile. That's exactly what I'm planning to do.
I let Ned sleep as long as he wants in the morning. He wakes up around noon and talks me into showering with him, which, of course, leads to sex. I fix lunch while he unpacks, and after we eat, he falls asleep again on the couch.
By late afternoon, he's up, and he gives in pretty easily when I remind him about what I want to do. We hold hands as we stroll unhurriedly toward the lake. I talk a little about what happened here during the week; he complains some about traveling with Rosalie.
After paying for our canoe, we walk onto the dock and take our paddles from the teenaged attendant.
"I'm steering this time," I state firmly, moving toward the rear seat of the canoe.
"Of course you are," he answers sardonically. I bet he rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses. "You know, it's possible to steer the canoe from the bow as well."
"I want to sit in the back and I want to steer," I say quietly. The steely tone of my voice makes Ned raise his eyebrows.
"Fine," he replies snottily. He's smirking, so I know he's just making fun of me. He steps into the front of the canoe, muttering under his breath – but loudly enough for me to hear. "Freaking bossy woman."
He leans over to the dock, steadying the canoe as I climb in and sit in back, leaving the middle seat between us empty. We push away and paddle toward the center of the lake, neither of us speaking for a few minutes.
The lake isn't as crowded as I expected for a sunny summer afternoon, but we still pass several other canoes and paddle boats. The voices of the kids playing on the shore carry across the water, and I find myself smiling as I watch them.
Ned still hasn't said anything, hasn't even turned to look at me. Pulling my paddle from the water, I reach the handle end forward to poke him gently.
"No wonder you like sitting back here. I have a perfect view of your spectacular ass," I tease, putting the paddle back into the water as I chuckle.
"That's what you're doing back there?" he asks. "No wonder you're doing such a lousy job of steering us." His shoulders shake with silent laughter. I know he's kidding, but he's kind of right. I'm not doing much back here.
"When I sat in front, I entertained you with scintillating conversation. Maybe you should concentrate on pleasing the captain," I suggest.
"All right. Words that make you happy. I'll go first," he says, turning his head to the side so I can hear him even though he lowers his voice. "Penetration."
I force myself not to laugh, but I'm not surprised at his choice. He tried to convince me to stay home and have sex instead of coming to the lake.
"Foreplay," I respond.
"Friction." I can't help but laugh this time.
"Um…cunnilingus," I whisper-yell, leaning forward so he can hear me.
"You know I'm gonna have to say blow job," he replies, twisting around to look at me.
"That's two words, Ned."
"Two words that make me happy," he laughs, facing forward again.
"What do you think it says about us that all of our happy words are sexual?" I muse.
"Not all," he argues. "Affection."
"Communication," I offer, smiling at his back.
"Compromise," he responds.
"Home," he says, pulling his paddle in from the water and lying back on the seat in between us. I pull my paddle in, too, and then lean forward to upside-down kiss him. I press my lips against his several times before sliding my mouth along his jaw.
"Love," I murmur against his skin. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Stel," he replies.
"Marriage," I whisper in his ear. I wait for him to say something, but after several seconds tick by with no response, I raise up to look at him. He takes his sunglasses off and I do the same. We look intently into each other's eyes, both of us searching, both of us answering. "How come you quit asking me?"
"You kept saying no. I didn't want to push too hard," he explains, reaching up to bury one hand in my hair. "So I decided to stop until you were ready to give a different answer."
My heart races and I feel like I might not ever be able to take another deep breath, but I smile at him.
"Maybe you should start again."
I watch the crooked grin appear on his face and grow wide. I see the flood of emotion in his dark, green eyes as I feel my own fill with tears.
"Marry me?" he asks.